Life is full of choices. Thankfully, some are easier than others. When picking up a winch, you’ll have the choice of either steel cable or synthetic line. And while it seems like companies such as Bubba Rope and Factory 55 are redefining recovery needs with innovative products, we will always be facing this first decision. So, how do you make the right choice? By understanding the difference.
Steel vs Synthetic Winch
A steel cable winch is the oldest and most common type you’ll encounter out there in the wild. Pretty simple, the rope consists of tightly wound steel cable. These winches are generally much cheaper than their synthetic counterparts, making them a very common option. It’s important to note however, that they can be very dangerous. When a steel cable snaps, it can come whipping back. And if it does, anyone or anything in the way will surely be feeling it in the morning.
Synthetic ropes, on the other hand, use synthetic fibers made up of materials like polypropylene or even polyester instead of steel. And while natural instinct may be to assume that steel rope would be stronger, pound for pound that isn’t the case. Synthetic rope is actually 1.5 times stronger than steel, but also much lighter. If a synthetic rope breaks, it won’t snap and hurt someone. It will simply fall to the ground. Because of their flexibility and safety, the overall recovery market is leaning toward synthetics. And many off-road events now require them of contestants.
Steel cable is not only dangerous when it breaks, but is also irreparable. If it snaps, the only option a user has is to replace the entire line. With synthetic ropes, the line can be spliced and repaired with certain braiding techniques. Additionally, steel cables can develop rust, making them more of a hazard to bare hands. While gloves are always recommended, regular use can still cause frays and kinks, making the rope not only risky to handle but difficult to spool. Synthetics are definitely easier to handle but can develop knots if not properly maintained.
While synthetic rope is emerging as a recommended choice, it too has drawbacks. Steel cable winches are in the category of ‘set it and forget it’. They require minimal maintenance and are very reliable when all is said and done. According to 4WheelerNetwork, “Steel is the perfect type of line to use in highly abrasive terrains, such as in mud, rocks, and sand, as it is less prone to fraying and abrading.” With synthetic ropes, you will be spending time washing it regularly and checking for any damage that may be present on the line. They need to be kept out of extreme heat, chemical exposure, and abrasive material. And all that lightweight strength comes at a cost. Some synthetic ropes can run nearly twice as much as their steel counterparts.
Ultimately, both synthetic and steel cable ropes have their place in recovery. And like most things in life, if you take care of the product and use it properly, it should be good to you. But in our opinion, synthetics win out for one simple reason: safety. No one wants to cut short their day of off-roading because of a wildly snapping cable maiming them (or worse). So, do some research on what’s available and make the investment.